Designed for Failure: The Common Core State Standards

“Standards” and “College readiness.”

Belief in the efficacy of the former and in the possibility of using them to create the latter (and an urgency manufactured through meaningless comparisons between American schools and others throughout the world) lies behind the current rush to impose the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on American public schools. The Editorial Board of The New York Times claims:

The new Common Core learning standards, which set ambitious goals for what students should learn from one year to the next, are desperately needed in New York, where only about a third of high school students graduate with the math and English skills necessary to succeed at college.

Somehow, the Times assumes, the standards are well crafted and can meet the need.

Are they? Can they? Let’s ask a college professor (me).

Will the CCSS adequately prepare students to succeed in my Composition and Literature classrooms?

If a student comes into my classroom with curiosity piqued by broad exposure to cultural, historical and scientific information and the ability to sit down and read a book with pleasure for an hour at a time, that student will succeed in my class. That student is primed for the dynamic conversations at the heart of learning—especially in what CCSS, with its stultifying faux precision, calls English Language Arts (ELA).

Mastery of ELA is participatory, a dynamic and not a thing that can be broken down into items on a list. Communication is process and involves a speaker/writer, the vehicle of interaction and an audience. What CCSS will do is remove this dynamic, killing the process through a focus on the vehicle, the “text.” Not only does this not prepare students adequately for college success but it leaves me facing classrooms of students prepared only to be as bored by school now as they were in high school. CCSS, I believe, will make my job harder.

The CCSS ELA section is broken down into “Anchor Standards” for Reading and Writing, ten each. These are:


Key Ideas and details

1      Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2      Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

3      Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure

4      Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

5      Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

6      Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7      Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

8      Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

9      Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of reading and Level of text Complexity

10   Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.


Text Types and Purposes

1      Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

2      Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

3      Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing

4      Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

5      Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

6      Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

7      Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

8      Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9      Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing

10   Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

I really doubt that these were identified and crafted by contemporary scholars in Literature or Composition/Rhetoric. That is, by the professors who will actually be experiencing the “college readiness” of incoming students. Instead, they reflect the attitudes of what are known as the New Critics of the 1940s and 1950s, a group of text-centric scholars whose influence extended through the “theory” movements of the 1980s but who, today, are not a central factor in how we approach either reading or writing in college. Their “close reading” is certainly a skill we teach and use, but it does not frame the activities of our courses—as it does the ELA “Anchors” above.

“Close reading,” also, is not a gateway skill. Not only do incoming college students not need it, but it does not serve to spark interest in the texts under consideration. That has to come first: students need to want to read before they can engage in the rather precise and difficult exercise of “close reading.”

Suffice it to say that CCSS, at least in its ELA component, was not crafted by teachers experienced in the contemporary classroom, either high school or college. Its birth seems to have been in Gates Foundation back rooms or, at least, with Gates money as the midwife. Russ Walsh shows pretty definitively that it did not come from any of the constituencies most directly involved, teachers, principals, professors, college administrators, parents or students themselves. (Read Diane Ravitch’s blog, where I found the pieces linked to here, if you want to keep up with the various commentaries on CCSS). The New York Times, like all of the CCSS supporters, has no problem with this, but urges New York State’s governor Andrew Cuomo to continue his (mindless) support of CCSS, his attempt to ram it down the throat of the state’s schools. All CCSS supporters seem to believe that decisions about what constitutes appropriate standards, what makes a student “college ready,” and who should be in charge of instituting changes should come from “the top,” from politicians and the foundations that fund them.

They are wrong.

Education policy only works when it arises from those who must institute it and from those most directly affected. In the case of CCSS, college faculty should have been asked to join with high-school faculty to craft a “college readiness” formula that both could buy into, that would give high schools appropriate standards to use as goals and colleges a firm starting point for easy embarkation onto undergraduate education pathways. This would then be presented to administrators, parents and students and revised to reflect their input.

Any other method will ultimately fail—as CCSS is already starting to do.

26 thoughts on “Designed for Failure: The Common Core State Standards

  1. This is a very frustrating moment in history: Where were the objections to the adoption of a common core as a condition of participation in a massive Federal funding effort to elementary and secondary education in the states? Individual states have accepted in some cases well in excess of a hundred million dollars a few years ago with this proviso — and have since spent it all. Obviously legislators don’t read the legislation before they commit their states to participation. And so on down the line to professors in post-secondary education major classrooms.

    The odd thing is that common cores have been part and parcel of elementary and secondary education in many if not most countries of the world — the United States as the notable exception. And we surely cannot point to our country’s performance in any of the comparative metrics published annually ranking the school achievements of our citizens — American school children perform miserably in comparison to many countries, embarassing the nation. Common cores haven’t destroyed those countries but have been ground rules of standardization to ensure that Jonnie learns to read in both affluent and in poor schools.

    In this country, school districts often determine residential property values, so different are their standards and performance one from another. Further, American teachers (and professors) have been vocally opposed to assessment and to standards and to the very idea of a common core, so they certainly were “asking” for an imposition upon them once the funding was accepted by the states and they failed to take the reins and devise such instruments themselves.

    Right now, it appears that this debate is being used in no small part as an excuse for post-secondary labor organizations (and AAUP is, let us remember, a labor organization) to engage in a major distraction from many of their pressing obligations which are directly related to all of post-secondary education, and not just the intersection with K-12. How else can one explain the years of silence followed by this last minute media rush? It is difficult not to be cynical in the face of these bare facts.

    • A national curriculum would not be a bad thing if that were what this is about. The Common Core is not being done in the interests of the students or society as a whole, however. Powerful corporate interests see it as the gateway to, as Rupert Murdoch has said, making profits from the $500 billion spent in education. Standardized testing, tied to books and technology, and the privatizing of public schools, are the underlying interests of those promoting the Common Core. Bill Gates has no background in education and is a college dropout. His overriding concern is tying education to the technology he sells. The data mining that is part of Common Core raises other concerns about privacy and the tracking of students based on standardized test scores.

      • [It is most gratifying to read an extended dialogue at the Academe blog — at last!]

        In New York State the high school Regents diploma has been a form of common core with standardized testing for the greater part of the last as well as this century. Yes, there are entire industries of coaching, and publication built around it (cf. so this is not really a new phenomenon. The same Bill Gates — who appears to endorse standardized goals (not the same thing as “inputs”) yet clearly does not for an instant believe that the mental and cognitive “output” facilitated by new technologies will be standardized — is the philanthropist working to rid the world of malaria and create early college high schools for some of the poorest students in America.

        About fifteen years ago when then NYS Deputy Secretary of Education for Post-Secondary Education Dr. Gerald Patton gave a presentation at a meeting of the New York State Conference of the AAUP, he argued forcefully that faculty should seize the assessment and standards movement and control it — or they risked being controlled by their administrations and external forces both public and private.


    • Actually there were plenty of objections to Obama’s “Race to the Top,” just as their were to Bush’s very similar “No Child Left Behind.” Both are far too reliant on standardized tests. Both take a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t account for the very varied educational needs of American kids.

      In fact, much of the disparity between U.S. and overseas student outcomes are explained when one controls for the much higher rates of poverty in the United States compared to other first-world industrial democracies, as this Economic Policy Institute report from last year points out: While I do think that our current social structure ought to be a source of national embarrassment, that isn’t being addressed by the CCSS. Those who want to use the apparent underperformance of U.S. students relative to those in other countries to enact a corporate, anti-teacher educational agenda conveniently fail to mention that many of the countries that outperform us, like Finland, have substantially stronger teachers’ unions than the U.S. does.

      • The picture painted by the EPI report is not quite as rosy as the commenter would have us believe — even with adjustments for social class.

        From the Economic Policy Institute report on the PISA scores linked above (please read to the end of the quoted passage):

        “* A re-estimated U.S. average PISA score that adjusted for a student population in the United States that is more disadvantaged than populations in otherwise similar post-industrial countries, and for the over-sampling of students from the most-disadvantaged schools in a recent U.S. international assessment sample, finds that the U.S. average score in both reading and mathematics would be higher than official reports indicate (in the case of mathematics, substantially higher).

        *This re-estimate would also improve the U.S. place in the international ranking of all OECD countries, bringing the U.S. average score to sixth in reading and 13th in math. Conventional ranking reports based on PISA, which make no adjustments for social class composition or for sampling errors, and which rank countries irrespective of whether score differences are large enough to be meaningful, report that the U.S. average score is 14th in reading and 25th in math.

        * Disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform better (and in most cases, substantially better) than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries in reading. In math, disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform about the same as comparable students in similar post-industrial countries.
        At all points in the social class distribution, U.S. students perform worse, and in many cases substantially worse, than students in a group of top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea). Although controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between these countries and the United States, it would not eliminate it.

        * U.S. students from disadvantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the three similar post-industrial countries than advantaged U.S. students perform relative to their social class peers. But U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries of Finland and Canada than disadvantaged U.S. students perform relative to their social class peers.

        * On average, and for almost every social class group, U.S. students do relatively better in reading than in math, compared to students in both the top-scoring and the similar post-industrial countries.”

    • You miss the point of the blog. The author is not objecting to standards, rather he is objecting to standards foisted on the nation by a small group of individuals who are not connected with K-12 educators or university professors of English Language Arts.
      I suggest that you take a look at the standards of nations with test scores you admire. Let’s begin with Finland. Their standards were developed by educators funded by the government, not Bill Gates. They are broad and gentle and incorporate the importance of the enjoyment of the learner. You can find the Language Arts curriculum here:
      It is not the thousands of pages of worksheets and scripts like the curriculum modules of New York State.
      Whether we should have national standards is one argument.
      Whether these Common Core standards are the right standards is another.
      Governments have made mistakes before, and at the outset they have gone unnoticed. To argue, “you did not complain at the beginning” is neither a rationale nor responsible response in a democracy.

      • Indeed, the most disastrous of the Common Cores most likely result from these corporate consultants, e.g. in New York State:

        “Using its federal Race to the Top funding, SED spent more than $28 million on contracts with Core Knowledge Foundation, Expeditionary Learning and Common Core Inc. to develop the modules aligned with the Common Core standards.”

        If memory serves correctly, historically a strong resistance has been exhibited by teachers and their unions in that state both to assessment and common core efforts, whereas a strong lobby to the State Education Department and the legislature to imitate the Finland model and grant control to teams of in-state teachers themselves might have produced a far happier outcome.

      • Correction to my previous comment at this thread:

        Paradoxically, the New York State United Teachers’ Website reveals strong formal support for the Common Core that accompanied its adoption in that state:

        For those who are not Yorkers, NYSUT is the AFT statewide affiliate and parent union of the majority of the state’s teachers’ unions as well as the SUNY and CUNY faculty unions.

    • Professor at Large, You might want to look into those comparative studies. American schools will students from comparable economic backgrounds do as well as students almost anywhere in the world.

    • We have to remember that CC was adopted sight unseen. No one saw them before the states signed on. Those who objected during the writing process were removed and their comments expunged from the record. We have 500+ early childhood development experts on record speaking out against these standards. The two main content experts refused to sign off on them. No state review survey I have seen even gave a majority positive comments. We have the math lead writer Jason Zimba on video explaining the standards were only focused on getting students into non-selective community colleges and they in no way prepare students for STEM studies. The red flags were everywhere but it pushed forward because of the power and corporate money behind it. As a teacher who left rather than subject my students to Common Core I am fighting full time against it, but the big money behind it often overpowers our voices.

  2. Aaron you have hit the nail on the head. The crafting of standards should have included teachers who teach the material and the professors that receive the students. But then that would be logical and the reformers are not logical, nor do they have the best interests of our students or country in mind when they spout their rhetoric. They are only interested in profits and $$$. Zip codes and poverty influence the current results of tests that have been used as measures of success and they will continue to influence results on these tests. Does Billy really know what my students need? or do the teachers who see them day in and day out? CCSS do not affect the poverty of my students nor do they make them want to pickup a book and read. I teach at the opposite end of the spectrum and am piloting the CC modules from Core Knowledge found on engageNY and I will tell you that my children, ages 3-5, hate the lessons. They squeal in delight when I substitute a real book with a story for the dry, lifeless lessons from the module.

    • An elephant in the room is the uneven quality of education programs in American higher education. This commenter knows of at least one program which hired an ESL tenure track assistant professor who, by her own admission, had never set foot in a school classroom in her professional life.

      Another elephant is the effect of teacher attitudes on the testing and implementation of any program — teacher resistance can translate to the students in the classroom through words and attitudes, consciously or unconsciously, just as the Clever Hans horse understood which numbers his master wanted him to choose.

      As a personal example, this commenter had a teacher in third grade who did not like classical music and who therefore prefaced the playing of sample works from “the three Bs” (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) with “I know you are not going to like this music but the state requires that we play this for you as part of the education curriculum.”

  3. In Connecticut, the higher education game is being rigged. As part of applying for Race to the Top, state universities had to agree to accept students who went though common core schools. And EVEN if they are unprepared for college, they will simply have to take a course to make them more ready. And then, colleges are aligning standards in higher ed to reflect many of the Common Core standards. Check your states Higher Education obligations as a result of RTTT.

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  5. Professor Barlow,
    Perhaps your choice of the word “formula” (in the penultimate paragraph) bears further consideration?

    • I take your point. However, “formula” doesn’t have to be prescriptive. A formula can be open-ended or composed of place markers (to be substituted for by individual users) rather than absolutes. “Guide,” however, might have been a better choice.

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